Facts About Captivity

Facts About Dolphin Captivity Taiji Dolphin in Pen

Dolphins in the Wild

A pod of wild dolphins can travel up to 100 kilometers a day in the open ocean. Each member plays an integral role in ensuring the health and well-being of the group, and families frequently remain together for life. The elder pod members teach crucial survival skills to the young and pass on knowledge. Dolphins are known to have signature whistles much like how humans have names, and communication among the pod is constant. Prey is tracked via echolocation, the projection of high-frequency sound waves and the subsequent interpretation of the resulting echoes.These are mammals who have had 50 million years to perfect being a dolphin, and have developed the right methodology to thrive in the ocean. Read more on our Dolphin Fact page.

Living in Captivity

Dolphins living in captive conditions face circumstances vastly different than those of the ocean. Often they are placed in unfamiliar groupings, with dolphins that have come from different families, making communication between them impossible. Space is limited, which sparks aggression and frustration. The surroundings are bare and sterile, with little mental stimulation or diversion. Many captive dolphins are regularly treated with ulcer medication or antidepressant medication to alleviate the frustration of captivity.

When faced with an aggressor, dolphins in the wild can easily swim away to avoid an interaction. Instead captive dolphins often bear scars or rake marks, evidence of a clash with a tank mate. Prolonged confinement in such small quarters can lead to depression and self-harming behaviors. One of the earliest documented examples of such behavior was observed in Hugo, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquarium. Hugo was observed repeatedly smashing his head against his tank walls, a behavior that has been observed in other captive marine mammals, along with gnawing on tank walls and gates. On the opposite extreme, other captive dolphins may float listlessly at the surface of the water, a stereotypic behavior known as “logging,” or deliberately beach themselves on a platform or stage.

Food deprivation is still alive and well by the way, but the industry doesn’t like to admit that, but there really is no way to control a dolphin without food. It’s not possible. Your dog will do things for a pat on the head, not true with a dolphin, and that is the only reason why we had five Flipper dolphins. – Ric O’Barry

A Life of Training

Wild captured dolphins must endure significant training to adapt to captivity. They must learn to accept a new diet of dead fish, as well as to undergo a variety of invasive operations, such as

  • Tubing – Dolphin is trained to accept the introduction of a tube into its stomach. If an animal is sick, it can be force-fed via this method.
  • Presentation of flukes – Dolphin is trained to present its tail and remain motionless for blood draws.

However even captive-born dolphins must become accustomed to the human interactions required of them. This is accomplished, without exception, through food deprivation training.

Labeled as “positive reinforcement” or “operant conditioning”, dolphins are kept hungry enough so that they will comply with instructions from trainers, whether to learn new behaviors or to execute them during a performance of swim-with-dolphin encounter.

Physical Detriments of Captivity

Because tanks lack the depth of the open ocean to permit deep diving, dolphins in captivity frequently experience overexposure to the sun, which can result in sunburn and blistering. Zinc oxide must be applied to their backs. Tanks are often heavily chlorinated, burning the eyes of dolphins and causing permanent damage to eyesight. 

In some facilities, the water is improperly treated and maintained, with litter from park customers thrown into tanks, or bacterial growths which lead to lesions and open sores. Other dolphin facilities in sea lagoons near cruise ports collect fuel runoff from ship motors and other marine waste.

Dolphins who participate in swim with interactions are regularly observed with persistent wounds and abrasions from being handled by customers, their beaks raw from pushing guests through the water or being grasped for kisses and photo ops. Other wounds are observed as the result of aggressive outbursts from tank companions, as bullying has been regularly documented. Dolphin and whales in captivity are often documented with compromised teeth, often the result of frustrated chewing on their tank walls. 

In their orca counterparts, confinement in small tanks leads to the well-documented “fin flop” in male orcas, a condition noted in 100% of captive male orcas and 0% in wild male orcas. 

What Can You Do To Help?

The conditions for captive marine mammals cannot compare to their natural ocean environments in quality, or size. Enduring a lifetime of frustration for human amusement serves no purpose other than to enrich the owners of captive dolphin facilities. If you would like to help, please:

TAKE THE PLEDGE to NOT buy a ticket to a dolphin show

DOWNLOAD our Anti-Captivity Brochure

EXPLORE our Activism Guides

Dolphin Project Take Action Now

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